Children’s talk in education: a potted history

by Alan Howe

Educational consultant and member of the Oracy Cambridge Management Team

The recent conference ‘The Power of Talk’, organised by the newly established Study Centre for oracy at Hughes Hall in Cambridge, was oversubscribed and very successful.  Speakers and participants from a range of contexts and professions explored the different ways in which the spoken word was essential to education, business, health and well-being, and the arts and sciences.

Half a century ago, children’s talk in school was an endangered species. Of course it was there; schools were full of it, especially playgrounds, but at best it was tolerated, at worst discouraged.  I remember, for example, in the early 1980s coming across a notice posted in every classroom in a Wiltshire secondary school: ‘SOS: pupils in this classroom are Seated, Occupied, Silent.’  As a recognised means of learning and a skill that teachers should give specific attention to, children’s talk was neglected and largely hidden from view.

In the late 1960s and 1970s this situation began to change with the upsurge of a number of important studies of the nature and value of informal talk. Andrew Wilkinson coined the word ‘oracy’ in 1965 because he wanted to assert that the spoken language was as systematic and worthy of study and promotion as written literacy.  Sociolinguistics fieldworkers collected and analysed examples of naturalistic talk in classrooms. New technology – cassette tape recorders – made collecting examples much easier.  Seminal studies published by, for example, Penguin Education such as ‘Understanding Children Talking’, ‘Language, the Learner and the School’ and ‘From Communication to Curriculum’ revealed the value of talking as a means of developing understanding.  Other studies focused on the relationship between the language of school and educational failure e.g. ‘Lost for Words’ and ‘The Language Gap’.

The publication of ‘A Language for Life’ (The Bullock Report) in 1975 was a critical moment. Set up by the then Education Secretary of State, Margaret Thatcher to enquire into the teaching of reading and other uses of English in schools, it went a lot further than that. Chapter 10, ‘ Oral Language’ picked up on the growth of academic interest in the language of classrooms, and set out a detailed account of the spoken language experience of children in schools. In just twenty pages it made a number of powerful and far-reaching statements about the importance of talk. Here is just one example:

‘Any one person belongs to a number of speech communities, and correctness therefore becomes a matter of conforming to the linguistic behaviour appropriate to the situation. Many people find this notion of relativity hard to accept, but it seems to us far more reasonable to think in terms of appropriateness than of absolute correctness.’

It was also in the Bullock report that for the first time official recognition was given to the importance of ‘exploratory talk’ as a means of learning.

With the introduction of a National Curriculum in 1987, speaking and listening was granted equal status with reading and writing. It had its own ‘Programme of Study’ and ‘Statements of Attainment’. Children in England were required by law to speak in class; teachers were required to give equal attention in their literacy teaching to talk and to foster its development.  A National Oracy Project, funded by the Schools Curriculum Development Committee (later renamed as the National Curriculum Council), ran from 1987 to 1993. It led to an upsurge in local projects in 35 education authorities in England and Wales, and involved thousands of teachers who worked with local coordinators to investigate and promote a wide range of talk in schools across all phases, from early years to tertiary instructions.  Collaborative groupwork; storytelling; oral history projects; spoken explanations in science; drama which enabled young people to find different voices and talk eloquently in role; and lively, thoughtful whole class discussions and debates. Official recognition, statutory regulation, national standards and assessment and were allied to on the ground developments and a wealth of local and national publications. Policy makers, schools and academics were, for a brief period, in synch. The endangered species had achieved protected status and was alive and flourishing.

Since that high point, talk has been in gradual retreat, suffering from successive waves of curriculum revisions that have reduced its importance. This retreat is in part the consequence of an accountability regime which through school inspections and publication of results has re-asserted standards in reading and writing as ‘English’.  It hasn’t been a full retreat.  Although the primary National Literacy Strategy (1988-2011) initially focused on reading and writing, it later introduced a strand of work on talk, which was also taken forwards by the Secondary Strategy (2000-2011). Now, in 2016, lessons are more likely to include opportunities for children to talk about their work with each other, with teachers who recognise the need to encourage participation, and who are interested in how what children say can be an insight into their learning. The development of carefully graduated and exemplified ‘levels’ in the ‘Assessing Pupil Progress’ materials (used by most schools) kept alive the view that for talk to be fully valued, it needed to be assessed as well. On the ground, however the reality was usually that teachers devoted their energies to assessing written literacy, and just gave a cursory nod to the separate assessment of talk.

The latest revision of the national curriculum (2015) was designed to reduce the level of detail and strip the statutory elements back to ‘essentials’. There is an irony that in doing so, speaking and listening has been significantly reduced to just a short list of desired features. Despite this, there are many residual pockets of good practice, although I detect a significant habitat loss. Although still visible, talk is less likely to be explicitly taught, assessed, and valued in its own right.  It is seen, in DfE publications at least, as the maidservant to the more important business of learning to read and write; and as a set of skills that favour presentation, performance and ‘public’ modes of speech as opposed to the fuller range that was originally enshrined in earlier versions of the curriculum.  As a counter weight to this, there is an extensive and rich back catalogue of ideas, resources and exemplification, and many teachers who were around during the past twenty years will remember that speaking and listening were much more prominent features of the educational landscape.  Some manage, despite the prevailing wind having swung round, to make their classrooms places where talk can flourish; their view of literacy is one that integrates oral and written language to the benefit of both.

The conference called for renewed recognition and understanding of oral language – to reassert its power; its relationship to power; and its varied use in life, in work and in learning. The time is right to redress a balance that has recently been tipped in the wrong direction.

Full steam ahead for Oracy Cambridge!

 by Professor Neil Mercer
Director, Oracy Cambridge, Hughes Hall

The conference to launched our new study centre, Oracy Cambridge, was held at Hughes Hall on the 22nd of April 2016. Ninety people attended – a capacity crowd for the Pavilion room – and it had been fully booked up well in advance. One of the main aims, which reflects the aims of the centre, was to bring together people from different professions and places of work who all shared an interest in developing the effective use of spoken communication to get things done, but who had probably not had the opportunity to discuss this common interest before. We were successful in this respect; although those from school and university education were the largest group, there were also social workers, speech therapists and lawyers, as well as representatives of the medical and business professions and from the world of performance arts. Organisations with a direct interest in developing public awareness of the importance of communications skills were also represented, such as the National Literacy Trust, The English Speaking Union, the Communication Trust and Voice 21.

In the spirit of practising what we preach, we organised a day in which formal presentations were balanced with opportunities for people to meet and talk in groups (which were selected to mix participants from different backgrounds) and to feed back ideas from their discussions to the full assembly.  The presentations were varied, including a storytelling session (by professional storyteller Ben Haggarty) as well as the more usual academic talks. One of the academic presentations, about talk in care homes by Nick Andrews of Swansea University, reduced many of the audience to sympathetic tears! The Hughes catering was, as ever, excellent and I am sure that it – and the wonderful organising skills of Rebecca Burtenshaw of the Hughes Development Office – helped create the positive atmosphere that we had hoped for.

A review of the feedback forms reassured us that our impression that people had enjoyed and valued the event was correct. And here are a few of the comments which I received by email, directly from participants, in the following week:

  • ‘First of all, a huge thank you to you and your team for organising the recent Oracy conference. It was a hugely informative day, and such a fantastic opportunity to meet so many people from different backgrounds with a clear and common interest.’
  • ‘You made me reflect on my own education and career.  During my gap year working for a small firm of family solicitors in Guildford in 1970 I now realise I learnt invaluable life oracy skills.’
  • ‘An overdue email of congratulations on the great success of the Oracy conference… As a delegate I enjoyed every aspect of the day.’
  • ‘Thanks for a really interesting day last Friday – I came away with my head buzzing with lots of ideas – and talk!’

Buoyed up by the success of our efforts, the task that now engages the centre management team is to use the contacts made and ideas generated on that day to build an ‘oracy network’ and plan a series of targeted activities and events to pursue our goals of promoting the value of oracy training/teaching in the wider world (with policy makers a particularly important audience), sharing relevant research and other practical knowledge about developing spoken communication, and organising some smaller events with more  specific aims and goals.

Welcome to Oracy Cambridge!

In the world of work, the value of effective spoken communication is almost universally recognised. Job adverts emphasise the importance of being a confident communicator, or a strong ‘team player’.

There is good reason for this. At their best, teams are creative problem-solving units, demonstrating that ‘two heads are better than one’. Research in psychology, linguistics and neuroscience now encourages the view that human intelligence is distinctively collective and that language has evolved to enable collective thinking.

We do not only use language to interact, we use it to interthink (Littleton & Mercer, 2013). Contrary to popular beliefs about ‘lone geniuses’, it is increasingly accepted that many of the major achievements of humankind have resulted from effective collaboration and communication in small groups.

Yet poor communication in workplace teams is common, and this can inhibit creative problem solving and lead to poor decision-making. The same applies to communication between staff and customers, carers and their clients, teachers and students, and many other occupational relationships.

Why is poor communication so common? The reason is that the ability to use spoken language effectively (oracy) has to be learned; and even highly intelligent people may not have learned how best to use talk to get things done.

It is also important, in a participatory democracy, that all people – not just those from privileged backgrounds – develop the ability to speak confidently in public, to present effective and persuasive arguments through speech, and to examine critically but constructively the arguments presented by others.

So it is very unfortunate that, unlike literacy and numeracy, oracy is rarely taught in schools. Government educational policy in the UK accords little value to teaching talk skills. This is also the case in most other countries.

And while educational research has shown that there are some very good ways of developing oracy skills, there is currently little contact between practitioners in school-based education and workplace training.

Oracy Cambridge aims to address this situation, by:

  • Raising awareness of the importance of effective spoken communication, and ways that it can be taught and learned, amongst policy makers and practitioners, within the UK and internationally.
  • Hosting events that bring together those concerned with understanding and developing effective spoken communication in educational settings, workplaces and communities.
  • Collecting and disseminating empirical findings and conclusions based on research that can influence education, work-related training and policy.
  • Creating and sharing practical support materials for developing and assessing oracy, in schools and workplaces.